Resident Spotlight: Dr. Jessica C. Williams DPH 23

Dr. Jessica C. Williams DPH 23 fell in love with dentistry when she volunteered at a community dental clinic during college – indeed, she fell in love with the idea of using dentistry to improve people’s lives.

So when she recently received the Dr. Bessie E. Delaney Scholarship from the National Dental Association Foundation, it was especially meaningful, she said, as Dr. Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delaney, the only black woman to graduate in her dental school class at Columbia University in 1923 and the second Black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York, was a huge force in her community. 

“She was never afraid to use her voice to talk about injustice,” Williams said. “She spoke up for herself and she spoke up for the underserved, and that’s somebody who I want to be honored alongside with.”

In 2021, she received a Herschel S. Horowitz Scholarship from the American Association of Public Health Dentistry Foundation, which awards a student pursuing the dental public health specialty and intends to carry forward a mission to improve population-level oral health

As soon as Williams decided to pursue a career in dentistry, she knew that she wanted to have a community-oriented practice. But as she learned more about health disparities – including through an internship at a national dental public health organization, which showed her how dentists and public health professionals could make an impact at a population level – she realized that she wanted to pair dentistry with public health.

While in dental school at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Williams was selected for the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, for which she created an oral health literacy program for a food bank. She imagined that her work through the fellowship would be focused on teaching people how to brush and floss effectively, but instead, most of the conversations she had focused on access to care.

“I was talking to a lot of working-age adults, where they are caught in the middle,” Williams said. “They can’t afford the care they need. … They wanted dental care, they knew they needed dental care, they had clinics they wanted to go to so bad, and they couldn’t. That broke my heart, and also fueled the fire in me to address coverage.”

After dental school, Williams participated in the National Health Service Corps, picking a clinic in rural, southeastern Iowa to complete her service. Up until that point, her experiences with underserved populations had always been in urban settings; now, she was viewing oral health disparities through a rural lens.

 “To me, it was completing a picture,” she said. 

While in Iowa, she realized that solving the issues she was experiencing getting patients the care they needed and wanted required changes to policy at the state and federal level – and not just health care policy.

“Policy is important, but what you learn is that economic policy is important, housing policy is important, transportation policy is important,” Williams said. “All of that impacts my ability to do a filling on a patient, or to hopefully have a child come in for an exam.”

Williams discovered GSDM through the recommendation of Dr. Eleanor Fleming, a GSDM alumna, who spoke highly of the supportive nature of the institution.

“Every institution is going to teach you what you need to know, but it’s the context in which you’re getting that degree or certificate that makes all the difference,” said Williams, who is pursuing both a CAGS and a Master of Science in Dentistry  in Dental Public Health at GSDM.

While at GSDM, Williams has continued to seek out opportunities to increase access to care and to improve the workforce, in part by diversifying and supporting that workforce. She is not yet sure what she will do after she graduates this spring, but plans to build on her work to date around increasing access to care and improving health equity.

“You need to pair the practice with the policy,” Williams said. “When I’m speaking with a legislator, I can tell them a real story … These aren’t projections; these aren’t assumptions. These are things that happen and keep me from giving people the care they need.”